Ryder on the Storm

Michael Kaplan

December 9, 1990

It’s been a bumpy ride for Hollywood’s teen quest

A half-hour after the re-scheduled meeting time, Winona Ryder is nowhere in sight. As the minutes tick by, one thinks about what a difference 12 short months can make in the life and times of a young Tinseltown player.

Just a year ago, Winona was playfully parodying the hot young star bit, sending out messages that she didn’t take any of this Hollywood stuff too seriously. It was already evident, after her scene-stealing performances in “Beetlejuice” and the dreadful “Great Balls of Fire,” and her droll, star-making turn in the dark satire “Heathers,” that she was virtually in a class by herself among young female performers.

As she became the industry’s teen darling, everywhere one looked, there she was: taking one reporter on a tour of L.A.’s haunted houses, doing an Interview with her godfather Timothy Leary, becoming engaged to TV’s bad boy Johnny Depp.

Now 19, Winona Ryder’s almost taken the town — but the campaign has been far from smooth. The ascent to star parts in the upcoming “Mermaids” and “Edward Scissorhands” and the recently released “Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael” has been clouded by her sudden exit from the Italian set of “The Godfather, Part III.”

The key role of Al Pacino and Diane Keaton’s daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s hotly anticipated sequel seemed certain to mark Ryder’s arrival as an adult star. But, claiming exhaustion, she walked away from it all, and ever since she’s been at the epicenter of a storm of talk — much of it very different in tone from the enthusiam that greeted her just a year ago.

Finally, a stretch limousine pulls into the hotel’s circular drive. The back door opens and out tumbles a tiny, unbreakable china doll. As Ryder approaches, she looks absolutely sure of herself. Wearing pegged black jeans, a navy blue windbreaker and a chambray shirt, she could be a rich-kid freshman from UCLA.

Sitting down in the nearly empty restaurant, Ryder orders tea and acknowledges that “all of those interviews and photo sessions and stuff” can be “a drag.” In fact, she recently moved with Depp from Hollywood to Manhattan to escape the publicity machine.

“Every move I made here was being documented,” she says, leaning closer for emphasis. “Everyone I met here was in the industry. They were all scamming each other. It wasn’t real life to me. It was, like, living in a magazine or something.”

Ryder is having to put up with the scene around Depp, who sent up his own teen-idol status in John Water’s film “Cry-Baby.” The press can’t seem to resist writing about his habit of getting engaged to such starlets-of-the-hour as Jennifer Gray and Sherilyn Fenn. A rash of bumper stickers in Manhattan read “Honk if you’ve never been engaged to Johnny Depp.” Depp has demonstrated the permanence of his affection for Ryder by having “Winona Forever” tattooed on his deltoid. Ryder says, “I was thrilled when he got the tattoo. Wouldn’t any woman be?”

Ryder’s chosen to don a blond wig and cheerleader get-up opposite a Depp buried under tons of bizarre makeup, replete with shears for finger, in Tim (“Beetlejuice,” “Batman”) Burton’s surreal Peter Pan-esque fantasy, “Edward Scissorhands.”

“Working with Johnny turned out to be really great,” she says. “I think we have pretty good chemistry.”

With or without Johnny, “Edward Scissorhands,” a weird, hip ’90s movie, fits easily into the Ryder oeuvre. And apart from that, Tim Burton is her dream director. “Tim talks my language, you know?” she says. “Did you ever meet somebody who you can just talk to? That’s how I feel about Tim Burton. We have the same sensibility; we think the same things are funny.”

Long before Tim Burton decided to cast Depp in the title role, he knew that he wanted to work with Ryder again, having directed her in “Beetlejuice.”

“Winona’s always done these dark roles, and I wanted to see her in a cheerleader outfit,” he says, cracking himself up. “Winona is, basically, a great actress. The role in ‘Edward Scissorhands’ is tricky because she plays a suburban youth who doesn’t have very much of an edge. Winona brings a weight and believability that isn’t inherent in the role. But she does it very naturally. You don’t see Winona working at it. Her process remains invisible. And acting that way requires a great deal of confidence.”

Burton’s assessment of Ryder is borne out in the upcoming “Mermaids.” Her performance as Cher’s oldest daughter, Charlotte — a Jewish girl who longs to be a nun, a virgin who can’t wait to start seducing men — is Ryder’s most complex character to date.

Long before Ryder saw the script for “Mermaids,” she read the book by Patty Dann and still remembers its appeal. “It touches different people in different ways,” she says. “Some people think it’s about mother/daughter relationships. Other people think it’s about what happens when you don’t have a father. I think it’s about being a teenager and jumping from one obsession to the next and not being able to figure out who you really are and what you really think…

“Mermaids” had more than its share of troubles getting off the ground. Cher reportedly went through countless rewrites and three directors (Lasse Hallstrom, Frank Oz and, finally, Richard Benjamin), and Ryder herself was brought in to replace Emily Lloyd. Ryder brushes these matters aside with a wave of her hand, but she does want to talk about working with Cher.

“Cher and I were instantly compatible,” she says. “We just struck up, like, an instant friendship. We connected real well and I think it comes through in the film. She’s very wise, but also very girlish; she taught me how to relax. During the last half of the movie we worked every single day — and since I narrate the film, I had to do a lot of voice-overs, which are difficult to get just right — so it was important for me to relax and keep from, you know, freaking out.”

Ryder is only a teenager but she’s far from the girl-next-door. according to “Heathers” writer Waters, “She threatened to kill herself or us if she didn’t get the part.” Ryder is an intense actress with her own very willful ideas.

Her upbringing was anything but ordinary. “My father’s a wizard,” she says about the man who’s been characterized as a ’60s Bohemian holdover. “My parents are intellectuals My father’s a rare book dealer, my mother’s a video artist. They’re more like beatniks than hippies. It bothers me to have tags slapped on them. I didn’t grow up in pot fields. We didn’t live on a commune, but on a piece of land where other people had their own houses. It was just, like, a neighborhood except it was out in the country. It’s not what people make it out to be. You have to realize that I was not raised by the fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.”

Ryder grew up knowing Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary long before she was old enough to realize their places in history. “Timothy’s brilliant. I can talk to him forever. You listen to him speak and it’s like watching a movie.”

Ryder had to sacrifice much of her childhood to become an actress. “My friend Helene, one of my real good friends from home, just had a prom,” Ryder says softly. “I’ve never had a prom. I’ve never even been asked to dance. Here I am, almost getting sued, and she’s picking out the dress for the prom. I was like… I want that so bad. Then I realized that maybe I’ve missed out on proms and Valentine dances and keggers, but I have movies as my memories. I like what I’ve done, you know? I wish I could have had it both ways, but I couldn’t, and I don’t regret the choices I’ve made.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design